Ten years ago, Susan Davis introduced me to the notion of “both/and”, or “both…and”.  It may be a measure of cultural imprinting, or a slow paced intellect, that it took me some time to grasp the full meaning.  “Both, and…” says don’t settle for the best of both sides of an either/or choice; rather recognize that there are other best sides to incorporate as well.  It is another way of saying, “You are both right”, an observation Solarex CEO, Harvey Forest, was fond of making in the midst of heated debates among his management team members.  But it goes further.  It is essentially a call to integrate, not differentiate.  Not surprisingly, you’ll find the call pervasive in Buddhist teaching, and in some Christian teaching as well, as in “We are many parts; we are all one body.”

Those of us who got our energy education in the 70s were steeped in dueling LCOE[1] analyses that, academically in retrospect, tried to determine if a coal based US energy future would be a tenth of a cent more or less expensive than a nuclear based future.  In this context, President Obama’s “all of the above” mantra would have been prophetic, but at the time no one would have been happy with it.  Oil was highly problematic.  Natural gas looked as if it had no long term future.  Coal and nuclear each had big liabilities that were easier to point out than do anything about.  The debate was about their benefits, at least among engineers. 

Fast forward a couple decades.

Carl Weinberg was been PG&E’s R&D manager before California utilities were allowed and encouraged to defund and deconstruct their R&D programs.  He had popularized the “no silver bullet, only silver buckshot” metaphor.  It’s basically shorthand for the observation that viable and useful energy solutions were, even then, tending to proliferate. 

Another colleague made a similar call for inclusive thinking after California withdrew its offer to purchase power from renewable power plant projects, thus pulling the rug from under the renewable industries it launched.  John White founded and still leads the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technology.  He commented at the time that commercially established California renewable companies lobbying for deployment incentives for themselves and against those for solar PV amounted to “an industry eating its young”.

So, fast forward again to now.  What is the full meaning of “both, and…” and how does it apply to renewable integration today?

In my work these days I have the benefit of spending time in different camps.  I attend meetings of leading solar advocates, specifically advocates of solar PV, some of whom prefer their PV big, some small, and some medium.  I attend meetings of natural gas technologists, advocates and regulators.  I meet with advocates for clean energy, and I meet with groups whose interests are aligned with the concerns of large energy corporations and their advocacy arms.  Finally, I meet with local groups concerned with the moral, ethical and practical response to climate change. 

I find I can easily respect and sympathize with all the work and concerns I encounter, but it is hard not to notice how easily passionate, purposeful people can become attached to the focus of their work or advocacy as if it were the silver bullet.  This tendency can manifest as a view of other actually complementary purposes as sinister and needing a good dose of negative advocacy. 

I’m no stranger to advocating for specific technologies.  (I spent six years as the de facto US government advocate for what is now called concentrating solar power, and I still have a soft spot for that option and the dedicated, talented and growing community of people who brought it forward and are committed to its success.) 

Advocacy has its place and purpose.  Like other missions it needs the best its practitioners can give.  But there are boundaries which should not be crossed.  The goal should be healthy enterprise, empowered by collaboration and integration, not by domination and annihilation of rival efforts.

There is certainly a moral dimension in our energy use and the things we do as a society to supply it.  But treating pieces and groupings of pieces in the overall energy puzzle as if they competing energy religions evokes the fable of the blind men and the elephant.  In a jigsaw puzzle there are no good and bad pieces, just pieces that don’t have much meaning unless they all fit together. 

I respect solar advocates who concern themselves with the negatives of incumbent energy industries electricity suppliers as with the positives of solar.  Equally, I respect people who concern themselves with making our current energy infrastructure the best it can be.  Even more, I respect the growing numbers of ordinary people doing the quiet and unheralded work of making solar real for more and more people, communities and countries. 

I respect the factions within the solar community that advocate for better solar technical solutions, some of which will find their place in an integrated and cost optimized energy system.  The purposeful passions economic and political competition encourages should not be discouraged. But as the new Catholic pope says of moral issues within his church, context is important. 

Renewable integration and decentralized energy also need advocates, which is one good reason IRESN exists.  Please support our work, share your ideas and questions with us, and let us know how we can be most helpful to you.

-- Gerry Braun

©2014 The IRES Network